Supreme Court Follows Precedent in Victory for Abortion Rights

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Abortion clinics in Louisiana will remain open after high court strikes down a law that would have forced most to close
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Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Center for Reproductive Rights, striking down a Louisiana law that would have closed all but one abortion clinic in the state. The medically unneccessary law would have banned doctors from providing abortion care unless they had admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles. The ruling in June Medical Services v. Russo--the first abortion rights case to be heard under the current makeup of the Supreme Court--allows the state’s three remaining clinics to stay open.

Today’s ruling follows precedent from just four years ago in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt--a case also won by the Center--in which the Court struck down an identical law in Texas. In that case, the Court held that laws that create more burdens than benefits for people seeking abortion care are unconstitutional. Today’s ruling applies Whole Woman’s Health and reverses the lower court decision that would have upheld the law.

Justice Breyer, delivering a plurality opinion, wrote,Given the facts found, we must… uphold the District Court’s related factual and legal determinations. These include its determination that Louisiana’s law poses a ‘substantial obstacle’ to women seeking an abortion; its determination that the law offers no significant health-related benefits; and its determination that the law consequently imposes an ‘undue burden’ on a woman’s constitutional right to choose to have an abortion. We also agree with its ultimate legal conclusion that, in light of these findings and our precedents, Act 620 violates the Constitution.”

Said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights:

This is a big win that vindicates what we’ve said all along, which is that the Louisiana admitting privileges law is unconstitutional. This is a victory for the people of Louisiana and the rule of law, but this case never should have gotten this far. We won an identical case four years ago in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and the fact that we had to fight so hard again goes to show that nothing should be taken for granted when it comes to protecting abortion rights. Indeed, the Court did not speak with a clear majority opinion which could muddy the waters when clarity is needed to protect abortion rights. 

“As a result of this decision, the clinics in Louisiana can stay open to serve the one million women of reproductive age in the state. 

“This is critical because access to abortion care has a profound impact on a person’s health and life. For this reason, the Constitution protects the most intimate decisions that a person makes about their body, their health, their life, and their future.  

“Yet for decades, opponents of reproductive rights have relentlessly sought to deny the promise of Roe v. Wade with an avalanche of laws targeting providers, clinics, and patients. These laws disproportionately impact communities of color, young people, rural communities, and people living in poverty. In Louisiana, abortion restrictions disproportionately harm African Americans who already live under the weight of systemic racism that pervades every aspect of American life including housing, voting, education, employment, and health. Louisiana lawmakers should be addressing these ingrained inequities rather than taking people’s rights away. 

“Unfortunately, the Court’s ruling today will not stop those hell-bent on banning abortion. We will be back in court tomorrow and will continue to fight state by state, law by law to protect our constitutional right to abortion. But we shouldn’t have to keep playing whack-a-mole. It’s time for Congress to pass The Women’s Health Protection Act, a federal bill that would ensure the promise of Roe v. Wade is realized in every state for every person.”

Said Kathaleen Pittman, director of the Hope Medical Group for Women:

“We are incredibly relieved that the Court set Louisiana straight and that we can stay open. But we still face huge challenges here and across the south. Louisiana has more abortion restrictions than any other state, and every year they pass more. It’s a never-ending battle. The law struck down today is just one in a sea of others that are intended to prevent us from serving our patients.” 

In today’s ruling, the Court also reaffirmed the ability of abortion providers to fight for their patients rights in court (known as third-party standing). The Court rejected Louisiana’s claim that plaintiffs in the case did not have third-party standing and that patients should be forced to file their own cases while still pregnant. On this issue, the Court stated, “the State’s strategic waiver and a long line of well-established precedents foreclose its belated challenge to the plaintiffs’ standing”.

Act 620 is one of 89 abortion restrictions on the books in Louisiana--that’s more abortion restrictions than any other state. Since 2011, over 450 abortion restrictions have been passed by states across the U.S. with the goal of eliminating abortion access. Last year alone, 25 states enacted some type of full or partial ban on abortion.

Said O’Melveny special counsel Jeffrey Fisher, who served as co-counsel in the case:
“I’m honored to have played a role in this important case before the Supreme Court. O’Melveny has a long and proud history of defending women’s reproductive rights against encroachment, and we are committed to continuing this vital work as necessary in the years ahead.”

The full decision is available here.

Photos and b-roll from the March 4 rally for media use are available here (credit: Center for Reproductive Rights).

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Case Information

For more background and history on this case, click here

Case Caption: June Medical Services L.L.C. et al. v. Stephen Russo, Interim Secretary, Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals - U.S. Supreme Court Case No. 18-1323 / No. 18-1460. The Center represents three plaintiffs: June Medical Services (the corporate name of the Center's longtime client Hope Medical Group, an independent abortion clinic in Louisiana), and two physicians (identified as "John Does" for their own protection) who provide abortion care. 

The defendant is Stephen Russo, the Interim Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Dr. Rebekah Gee, former Secretary of the State Department of Health and Hospitals, was listed as the respondent-cross-petitioner until early February 2020. We refer to the defendant as "Louisiana."

Lead Counsel for the plaintiffs: Julie Rikelman and T.J. Tu with the Center for Reproductive Rights, along with co-counsel O'Melveny & Myers LLP.

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MEDIA CONTACTS: 
center.press@reprorights.org; 585-919-9966
Emily Gest, egest@rubenstein.com: 212-843-8061